After a hospital reportedly pulls ads, Georgia paper says it won’t back down

When a small Georgia daily pointed out recently that a local hospital board was apparently violating the state’s open-meetings law, the paper was hoping the board might swiftly change its ways.

Instead, the hospital reportedly decided to cancel its advertising, end a subscription arrangement that provided newspapers to patients, and ban paper sales on hospital campuses. In other words, as one reader put it, they “took their ball and went home.”

The Valdosta Daily Times reported in mid-February that the board of South Georgia Medical Center had met in an executive session prior to the regularly scheduled meeting. Georgia law allows public boards to meet in closed session in limited circumstances, and only after the boards have met in public.

After that story ran, says Jim Zachary, the paper’s editor, he went to meet with hospital officials to urge them to follow the law. He even gave them the name of a contact at the state Attorney General’s Office who could explain the specifics of the law. When he learned that no one from the hospital reached out to the AG’s office, Zachary ran a sharply-worded editorial that condemned the hospital’s clandestine meetings and noted that the Times had notified the AG’s office of the violation.

The day the editorial ran, the hospital cut ties with the newspaper, according to a story in the Times. Laura Love, a spokeswoman for South Georgia Medical Center, declined to comment for this story.

The paper had given the hospital a deep discount for the bundled subscription for hospital patients, so that won’t really cause much of a financial hit, but the hospital did spend tens of thousands of dollars in advertising, Zachary said.

The paper’s owner, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., says it has the Times’ back.

“Some papers would probably cave on this,” said Bill Ketter, senior vice president of news at CNHI. “We don’t allow our papers to do that. That’s one of the benefits of being part of a larger organization that backs you when you’re right and will support you financially if need be.”

“This is a case of them trying to throw their weight around,” Ketter said. “We’re not going to let them.”

The hospital has also refused to sell the newspapers in the gift shop, the Times reported.

“It’s a public hospital, so I wonder about the constitutionality of that, but we’re not fighting it,” Zachary said.

The hospital’s reaction to the Times is similar to the schoolyard bully response the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette received from a university hospital chain that didn’t like the paper’s coverage in June 2015. In that case, the Pittsburgh paper reported, the hospitals banned the paper from sale in gift shops, after cancelling advertising on two earlier occasions.

As the healthcare industry has become a bigger and bigger part of the US economy—and a more prominent advertiser, too—hospitals have become major economic players in many communities. And obviously, local newspapers are weaker than they once were.

But in Georgia, at least, I doubt the hospital’s actions will achieve their desired effect.

Zachary has fought this battle before. He’s been at the Valdosta paper for about a year, and his pressure has already prompted the Valdosta and Lowndes County school boards to follow the open meetings law. He fought similar battles when he edited the Henry Daily Herald and the Clayton News Daily, community newspapers outside of Atlanta. He runs the Transparency Project of Georgia and sits on the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“This is a drum I’ll keep beating as long as I’m in this business,” he said. “The government belongs to the governed, not to the governors.”

Update, 3/31:

The Georgia Attorney General has taken the unusual step of fining the Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County over its repeated violations of the state’s open meetings law, according to the Daily Times.

The AG’s office noted in its letter to the hospital authority that the proposed $500 fine is significantly less than it could have to pay if state prosecutors pursued the case in court. Georgia’s law allows for fines of up to $2,500 for each official who participates in an illegally closed meeting.

Hospital Authority officials would also have to attend sunshine law training as part of the settlement the AG’s office proposed. The authority has 20 days to respond.

Kudos to the Daily Times for pushing the issue. The case should serve as a warning to other officials in the area—the Daily Times is watching you, and Attorney General Sam Olens’ office takes the law seriously. 

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.